When a smile becomes a fist: the perception of facial and bodily expressions of emotion in violent offenders

M. E. Kret*, B. de Gelder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

56 Citations (Web of Science)


Previous reports have suggested an enhancement of facial expression recognition in women as compared to men. It has also been suggested that men versus women have a greater attentional bias towards angry cues. Research has shown that facial expression recognition impairments and attentional biases towards anger are enhanced in violent criminal male offenders. Bodily expressions of anger form a more direct physical threat as compared to facial expressions. In four experiments, we tested how 29 imprisoned aggressive male offenders perceive body expressions by other males. The performance of all participants in a matching-to-sample task dropped significantly when the distracting image showed an angry posture. Violent offenders misjudged fearful body movements as expressing anger significantly more often than the control group. When violent offenders were asked to categorize facial expressions and ignore the simultaneously presented congruent or incongruent posture, they performed worse than the control group, specifically, when a smile was combined with an aggressive posture. Finally, violent offenders showed a greater congruency effect than controls when viewing postures as part of an emotionally congruent social scene and did not perform above chance when categorizing a happy posture presented in a fight scene. The results suggest that violent offenders have difficulties in processing emotional incongruence when aggressive stimuli are involved and a possible bias towards aggressive body language.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-410
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013


  • Aggression
  • Violent offenders
  • Body language
  • Context
  • Attention
  • Emotion attribution

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